Experts answer your COVID-19 vaccine questions
With countries like the United States and the United Kingdom already beginning the first phase of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, many questions have been raised locally about when South Africa will receive its first dosages.
While the country grapples with an increase in infection, reporting more than 17,000 new cases overnight, many have shown frustration with government’s move to opt with the COVAX Facility as a method of procuring vaccines.
Leading experts including Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines chairman Prof Barry Schoub, Health Department Deputy Director General Anban Pillay and PRICELESS SA researcher Safura Abdool Karim, joined a discussion on SABC’s Morning Live show to answer key questions around vaccine acquisition.
When will the vaccine be delivered?
“The COVAX Facility has indicated that we should expect delivery in the second quarter of 2021. They are trying very hard to get us delivery before that. If they succeed with the manufacturers, then we might get delivery earlier but we don’t have a specific date as yet. It will not be on one date because of the quantities that need to be delivered all over the country. It is likely we will receive the vaccine in tranches. We will get them in multiple deliveries.”
Have there been negotiations with other pharmaceutical companies?
“When the Minister of Health established the ministerial advisory committee on vaccines in September, we had a number of discussions with pharmaceutical companies, all of which have produced vaccines. They have shared the characteristics of their vaccines and when it will come on line. We have been talking to all of them. The reality of all of them have is that every country in the world wants the vaccine and it is only the Pfizer vaccine that has been registered globally in many countries. Those countries got into an agreement with Pfizer early on and were able to access the vaccine at this stage. The only other vaccine registered is the one from AstraZeneca.
The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees so many countries did not opt to go with the Pfizer vaccine as a mass vaccination programme because it is difficult to do that. We do not have sufficient storage capacity for -70 degrees. We have commercially only two large storage facilities that would keep that vaccine so we would not be able to keep the large quantities required to vaccinate millions of people.”
Are vaccines being manufactured in South Africa?
“No vaccine is being made in South Africa at all. There is one facility, Aspen, in Nelson Mandela Bay which is filling from bulk. They are getting bulk vaccine and filling into dials and syringes. They presumably have a contractual agreement to do that.”
Why do we not have vaccine access even if we participated in trials?
“It is important to bear in mind that these trials that were done were funded by governments of other countries. In the case of Pfizer, for example, they received a lot of support from the US government for the development of the trial. One of the conditions that most governments will have when they put in that amount of money into a trial without having a sense of whether it will be effective or not, is that once the trial is successful and the product is produced, they will access the product first. One of the things we need to bear in mind is that we have not funded any trials as such; we have only been participants in trials as a country.”
Are you satisfied with where we are as a country?
“I dispute that our situation is as result of poor planning. The reason that South Africa is not able to access the vaccine like the US or UK can is because we are not a wealthy country. That reflects historical inequality. This is something that is systemic and global: poorer countries are always left behind when it comes to new health interventions. That is not a result of our government not wanting a vaccine; it is a result of a system that prioritizes profits over people’s lives. The US and the UK and many other wealthy countries were able to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into funding the development of vaccines, some of which will not work. That is a risk a country like ours simply could not take.
It is completely reasonable that now that results are coming through that we are procuring a vaccine. We are doing the best we can in a system that is not geared for us.”
“If you go back to the time when vaccine trials started, at that point, nobody knew which vaccine trial would succeed or fail. If you went with a vaccine from a particular company, you had no sense whether it would succeed. Can you imagine if we put all our money into a particular vaccine that failed, we would have spent billions of Rands without having a vaccine.”
Why did government not include terms that would allow us access to a vaccine if our trials proved successful?
“These trials are organised on a research basis, not through government. Pharmaceutical companies would approach an academic centre and negotiate with them directly. It is bilateral between the academic centre and the pharmaceutical company.
I’m not aware of any clinical trial where the principle investigator has made it a condition that there has to be a supply of a particular drug that is being evaluated. It is done on an academic, scientific basis.”
“Companies made it very clear that if you want to buy vaccine, you need to get into an agreement which includes pre-payment on a risk basis in order for you to participate in the first allocation. That is a risk we were not keen on taking.”